Saturday was our final full day in Joburg. We knew the next day would be long – up early for church service and then a long drive to Swaziland, so we took it easy on Saturday. As a little treat we got to go to a lion park. Not knowing exactly what to expect, we were all excited and curious. As we pulled up it reminded me of the places I often saw driving along I-70 through Kansas. “World’s largest Gopher!” “30,000 ton elephant!” All gimmicks to attract tourists on a plain journey. But this time I felt no shame in being one of those tourists. After pulling in a small gate we got our tickets and had a few minutes to peruse the gift shop. Bob surprised us with Cinnabon for our fearless leader Jen’s birthday. We sat at long wooden tables covered by a canopy and enjoyed cinnamon rolls and coffee.
I was incredibly excited to be drinking a REAL latte and not instant coffee as all the South Africans seem to love. With me is my dear friend Jessica.
After we had our fill of snacks we went into the petting zoo portion of where we were. We got to see lion cubs, hyenas, and giraffes. We bought oats to feed the giraffes and while I’ve done this at the zoo there is something to be said for doing it in Africa. It’s just a million times cooler.
I think this was right before the giraffe wrapped it’s long rough tongue around my hand to get the oats, eliciting a very high pitched shriek from me. After meandering around looking at a few animals, we waited in line to pet the lion cubs. They made it very clear we were going into a baby lion’s pen and there was potential for the animals to harm us. So cool. Anyways, we went in groups and had to climb on a few different rock formations to actually get close to them but when we did, they just laid there and let us pet them.
Me and a baby lion cub. No big deal. (!!!!!!) It was so cool and probably one of the moments my mom was most jealous of when I told the stories of Africa. Once we all had a chance to pet the baby lions, we had lunch, and Bob took us in groups of four in his pick up truck to drive through an area where the grown up lions are living. I don’t think I’ve ever been so close to lions with only a thin metal door and piece of glass between me and them. We had to drive through a few places to find where the lions were stretched out. I was sitting in the front seat and Bob said, “Rachel, I want you to open your door and then slam it shut. Let’s see if we can get their attention.” I looked at him and said, “You want me to do WHAT!?” He just smiled and said, “You heard me. Don’t worry I’ve got the car ready to go in case they charge us. Just make sure you don’t actually get out of the car. Some Japanese tourists tried that a few years ago and well, they didn’t make it home.”
So what did I do? I opened the door as far as I could and slammed it shut. If I was going to do this, I wanted it to count. The lions didn’t even flinch when I slammed the door. At one point they all sat up and looked at us. 4 males and 3 females in the pride. I was awestruck at their majesty. They are the most regal and inspiring animals I’ve seen. There was something in the way they moved and carried themselves. We drove through a little more of the park and then returned to allow another group to go. It was such a cool moment.
Sunday morning we were up very early to eat breakfast, load up our stuff, clean up our messes, and head to the early service at Mosaiek. The church campus is stunning and puts all other churches I’ve seen to shame. However, when 19 of us pulled up (the girls already in their dresses for Swaziland) shivering and taking pictures in front of the fountain, it came as no surprise to anyone that we were tourists. The congregation members indulged us and a few introduced themselves to various members of our team. We were given a special welcome in the service and got to enjoy hearing worship sung in Afrikaans and English. I’m sure the music industry will be pleased to know that Chris Tomlin and Steven Curtis Chapman are alive and well in Johannesburg.
After the church service we said our goodbyes to Bob, Estelle, and a few other of the team members, loaded up our bus and embarked on a quick 30 minute drive to meet our new bus and some missionaries who agreed to bring us across the Swaziland border. We quickly repacked the trailer and busses, used the bathrooms, and started our 6+ hour drive to Swaziland. I chose to ride in the SUV with another leader and the missionary couple going with us. It was enjoyable company punctuated with moments of silence and stillness. However, I will say that an African road trip is fun, but nothing like one in the States. I was pleasantly surprised to have paved roads for the most part though paved is a relative term.
We made it through customs without incident, that being a feat for a group of 20 some (inclusive of our hosts and driver) foreigners. Going through customs was when I felt the shift from urban city culture to rural African desert. Though the landscape was beautiful and there were hills and greenery in the city, I saw the beginnings of desperation and abject poverty. It felt more dangerous and more hopeless. Billboards changed from something you’d see in a city in America to signs advocating monogamy being a way to help contain the HIV/AIDS infection rate. There was also a heaviness and sadness that hung over the people as we passed by. Daylight started fading fast and we were still close to two hours away from our homestead. What I learned through the night time driving was that Swazis stay off the road after the sun goes down because there are no overhead lights, people are reckless drivers any ways, and animals wander without warning onto the highway causing numerous wrecks. We saw at least one accident on our way and narrowly avoided two or three ourselves. I closed my eyes several times trusting in our driver but being very aware of how “safe” it feels to drive in America. By the end of our time in Swaziland I had come to appreciate African driving and may have brought back a few of their ideas, much to the chagrin of American drivers.
As we approached our home base, I asked our missionary friends point blank about spiders and snakes. Marcia calmly said it was winter so we may see a few spiders but snakes were few and far between. Scott (her husband) chimed in with, “well except for the chicken coop last week…” Marcia quickly shushed him and told him not to scare me. I took a deep breath and told them I’d rather know than be surprised. Apparently the pastor of the property we were about to stay at found a black mamba snake in the chicken coop not even a week before. I quietly shuddered and sent up a quick prayer that we wouldn’t be so fortunate. Scott then asked if I really wanted to know everything I was in for and proceeded after I verbalized affirmatively. “Really, what you need to look out for are scorpions and spiders. The house should be pretty clear of spiders but scorpions are the ones who might be out. We have scorpions in Georgia but those ones aren’t poisonous. But the ones here are. So yeah. You’re going to want to watch out for those.”
I’m pretty sure if they had been able to see me in the dark they would have laughed at my mouth hanging open. I had prepared for snakes and spiders, but scorpions? Oh no, I hadn’t signed up for that. I was ready to turn around and go back to freezing Joburg. We got to the team house, unloaded our trailer and scoped out our primitive but cosy home for the next 7 days. I had an internal debate for 10 minutes on whether or not to pass along the information I had learned about the scorpions. Knowing that the last thing I needed was 6 squealing high school girls on my hands, I decided to play tough after we had one spider freak out. “Ladies. We do not shriek for spiders. We kill them or we calmly ask someone to kill them. The only shrieking we do is for snakes and scorpions. Understood?” They all giggled and agreed. What they didn’t know was that I said that for as much of my accountability as theirs. And to their credit, there was maybe one case of spider shrieking. We were very lucky to not see any snakes or scorpions. A toad or two, but nothing that we knew could kill us. I also checked my sleeping bag and pillow every night before I went to sleep just to be sure.
That night we met our in country host Eric, who along with his wife Jen and kids Claire and Jake, oversee our care point as well as 9 others. Eric quickly briefed us on how to make the toilet flush, where to find things we may need, and promised to be back in the morning for a condensed Swazi culture training. We excitedly said goodnight, climbed into our snake/scorpion/spider free beds and tried to get some rest for our very full week ahead.
Next up… part 4 – bubbles, baby no pants, and why we didn’t need name tags.